Society for Women in the Civil War: A Range of Topics

Attending the 18th conference of the Society for Women in the Civil War, held over the weekend in Arlington, was a treat on many fronts. First, the group invited me to talk about Julia Wilbur two years ago when they met at Sweet Briar College. So it was neat to return and announce that the presentation had morphed into a book.

Second, I picked up bits and pieces on all sorts of topics. Highlights include the following:

Mount Vernon: Preservation of a Nation's Treasure during the Civil War

Mount vernon as it looked in the 1850s, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association purchased it.

Mount vernon as it looked in the 1850s, when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association purchased it.

How did George Washington's home make it into an SWCS conference? It's what came afterwards.

As Tim Daley explained, in the 1850s, a small group of women purchased the property for $200,000 and began to refurbish it. Fundraising activities included sending Edward Everett out on a lecture tour. A ferry began service between Washington and Mount Vernon, and the ladies received 25 cents per $1.50 fare. On February, 22, 1860, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association took title of the home and 100 acres.

During the Civil War, both sides respected Mount Vernon; according to Daley, the only territory on either side of the conflict considered neutral territory. The ferry service from Washington ceased, but visitors continued to come (including Julia Wilbur from Alexandria on several occasions, when she took plant cuttings with her as souvenirs!). In 1868, the ladies successfully pressed a reparations claim that the cessation of ferry service made them lose money.

Mount Vernon had fallen into disrepair by the 1850s. As this photo shows, ship masts held the place up, weeds proliferated, and paint peeled. Daley noted that restoration of Mount Vernon lay the foundation for historical preservation in the United States.

A Further Look at Women Doctors during the Civil War

Robert Slawson, M.D., a long-time volunteer with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, briefly discussed the era's more famous female doctors, including Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree, and Mary Edwards Walker. There should be more. Women wanted to serve on both sides, but social convention stood in their way. Some worked as nurses; others managed to be on the scene when desperate circumstances called for all hands on deck.

Slawson has also done digging to identify other "women Civil War physicians," including 10 nurses who later obtained medical degrees, 2 who may have served (they had medical education and were in places of conflict), and 8 who lived in places where they may have been called upon although he has found no documentation of their war work..

About 20% of male physicians were part of the war effort, he said. At the time, 240 women had medical degrees. Slawson has assembled as many photos and other information as he could find--but assumes there is more to discover.

Scandalous Washington

Cindy Gueli had the unenviable task of speaking after dinner. Fortunately, her topic--including spies, adultery, STDs, and other "scandals-- kept our attention. Gueli has collected scandals for just about every era in Washington, as indeed these scandals did (and do) abound. In the spirit of the conference, she focused on the Civil War era.

Here are two examples of how speaking to a conference like this is one is probably not her typical audience. First, she spoke about Confederate spy Rose Greenhow, who managed to steal Union secrets in part through her feminine wiles. Legend has it that she learned about Union plans for Bull Run from Senator Henry Wilson while the two were somewhat "involved." In the Q and A, one person vigorously defended Wilson. Second, Gueli brought up Daniel Sickles, who killed his wife's lover (the son of Francis Scott Key), was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity, and went on to become a general at Gettysburg. Again, from the audience, "I hate Daniel Sickles!"

I wonder where else has she heard an audience react to Henry Wilson and Daniel Sickles.

"Sorry that I Have Disturbed Your Mind": Love and Marriage in the Civil War

Patricia Richard, history professor at Metropolitan State University in Denver, spoke about her research-in-progress about African American experiences during the war, and specifically on how men's enlistment in the U.S. Colored Troops affected relations back home.

She drew on two small, but amazing collections of letters. The first set was letters between David and Mary Jane Demus, both age 19 when the war began, a newly married couple in Mercersburg, PA (in the "Valley of the Shadow" project digitized at the University of Virginia). The second, housed at the Connecticut Historical Society, features Joseph and Abby Cross, a couple with 4 children, from Griswold, CT. Neither collection has many letters (and only Joseph's and not Abby's survive), but Richard has pored over them to and tracked down many references to other people and events.  With Census and other records, she is constructing the lives of the two couples. Some of their experiences are unique, while others reflect common pressures, such as the impact when soldiers' pay was late or hard to transmit home.

Metropolitan State University colleagues Meg Frisbee and Patricia Richard.

Metropolitan State University colleagues Meg Frisbee and Patricia Richard.

Westering Women of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era

Meg Frisbee, also from Metropolitan State, is a Western historian. Her dates and places of reference are based in the events and geography well beyond the Mississippi. As she commented, January 1, 1863 (which all Civil War historians know as the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation) was noteworthy because it is when the Homestead Act went into effect.

She presented 10 women who moved west, as overland travelers, homesteaders, or Army wives. Using their diaries and other personal papers, she said she "asked" each one, "What did you think about the Civil War?" (I love the idea of posing a question and then seeing what emerges.) Again, a different perspective than for those us in the East or even Midwest. The answer, in the main, was that they did not think about or at least write about it. Too many pressing concerns competed for their attention and energy, from snakes to farming to loneliness. The most immediate perceived threat they wrote about came from Native Americans, and the "war" would be the Indian Wars that resulted in extermination and forced migration from the 1860s to the 1890s.

The Legacy of Salina Gray

Salina Gray, photo taken post-Civil war

Salina Gray, photo taken post-Civil war

Matt Penrod of the National Park Service moved us back to the D.C. area--and indeed, full circle because the story of Salina Gray, an enslaved woman at Arlington House, begins at Mount Vernon where her parents lived, considered property by George and Martha Washington. Whether a person was "owned" by George or Martha made a huge difference, as George freed his slaves in his will. Martha's passed on to her children, George and Nellie Custis. Thus the Nortons (Salina's maiden name) moved to Arlington House, which George had built just across the river from the nation's capital.

Custis, too, had ambiguous instructions in his will about freeing the enslaved. The people who interpreted those instructions were his daughter and son-in-law, Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee.

Salina Gray was the "trusted household servant" of the household, with varied interpretations about her role, especially once the Lees left. Did she truly try to ensure the safety of the Lee's valuables, as legend has it? Should she have stayed? What was the relationship between Salina and Mary? A letter from Salina to Mary, written in the early 1870s and found about 10 years ago, showed a somewhat warm relationship--telling Mary about her children, asking about the Lees. But Penrod cast doubt on any interpretation that they were "friends." 

Arlington House and its museum will undergo a significant renovation. In fact, expect it to be closed at least for a year. Penrod, who has spent most of his career there, will be involved in the extensive re-look at the educational and interpretative aspects of the site.